In August 2022, the Sexual Offences Act 2003 (the Act) was updated to extend the definition of “positions of trust” to include individuals that engage with 16-17 year olds in a religious or sporting context.
Amendment to the legislation came about following concerns voiced in parliament and society generally (for instance, through the NSPCC’s “Close the Loophole” campaign) that the definitions of positions of trust were drafted too narrowly, and that an extension to them was required to protect a wider range of relationships where adults held a position of influence or power over 16 and 17 year olds.
Prior to the amendment, Sections 16 – 19 of the Act stated it was illegal for an adult in a position of trust to engage in sexual activity with a 16 or 17 year old. The legislation was intended to protect 16 & 17 year olds over the age of consent but who would be considered vulnerable to sexual abuse or exploitation owing to the adults position of trust, influence or power over them. A position of trust arises in situations where the young person has some dependency on the adult such as where care, medical attention or education are being provided.
The legislation as originally drafted focused on statutory settings and narrowly defined the roles where a position of trust could arise, so while schools, hospitals and residential care setting were included non-statutory settings such as sporting and religious activities were not. This gave rise to situations whereby a sporting coach, who engaged in sexual activity with a 16 or 17 years old under their care, may have breached their organisation's internal policies and be subjected to disciplinary action but would not have committed a criminal offence.
This imbalance prompted the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) review of the legislation; they engaged with stakeholders across the youth and criminal justice sectors, including the police, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), sports bodies, victims’ groups, and religious organisations. The need for reform was also highlighted by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse.
The amendment has resulted in a new section (section 22A) being added to the Act which states that a person is in a position of trust if the person coaches, teaches, trains, supervises or instructs [a 16 or 17 year old], on a regular basis, in a sport or a religion. Sport is defined as (a) any game in which physical skill is the predominant factor, and (b) any form of physical recreation which is also engaged in for purposes of competition or display. Religion is defined as (a) a religion which involves belief in more than one god, and (b) a religion which does not involve belief in a god.
Some organisations felt the amendments did not go far enough and had pressed for legislation that captured all adults involved in caring for, training, supervising or being in sole charge of 16 & 17 year olds. The government however was concerned such a wide ranging amendment would stray into limiting the sexual rights and freedoms of over 16’s and as a compromise has included provision within the Act to allow additional positions of trust to be added via secondary legislation should that prove necessary.